William Hague, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, gave an after-dinner speech to the CBI at Grosvenor House, London, in May 2012.
One of my first posts on this blog concerned a speech he had made at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. I was underwhelmed by it, because he had been merely a talking head for a dreary FCO Press Release. Sadly, although I have given a link for you to see that critique, I shall be deleting it very soon. The video is no longer available on YouTube – perhaps the FCO were mortally stung by my comments.
Hague is one of the finest speakers around, and I should dearly love to post a critique of him in glorious full flight. Shall we see whether he did justice to himself at this dinner?
For nearly three minutes at the very beginning we are treated to his outstanding speaking ability. He settles and primes the audience, firstly thanking the previous speaker – not with hollow platitudes but with specific references to what he said – then moving seamlessly into reminiscent anecdotes about Boris Johnson. It is masterly. He does it with brilliantly judged humour that is suitably self-deprecating and superbly timed; but the real proof of the pudding is in the effect on the audience. He has them hooting with laughter which, this early in the proceedings, is notoriously difficult. You need to be as good as a stand-up comedian to do that, and he is. And of course all this is shot from the hip.
Again seamlessly, and starting from around 2:45, he gently moves us from that stunning opening to what he is here for. His eyes gradually go down to the script his Civil Servants have prepared and by 3:30 he is firmly on the political message. The transition is interesting, because little flashes of the real man continue to peep out before being suppressed below the persona of the Statesman.
Whether it is because of a residual legacy of that brilliant opening, or because he had more personal control over the content of this speech I don’t know; but even when the transition is complete and he is merely reading the script he is a little more animated than he was in that dreadful previous one on this blog. Nevertheless I feel my interest levels dropping steadily. He is reading to the CBI, and it might as well be a bed-time story.
William Hague being required to read a speech is like Frankel being harnessed to a milk-float. He’ll make the delivery process more exciting, but the product will be just as bland.
English as she is spoke and English as she is wrote are subtly different languages. One of these days I shall write a full-scale essay on the subject; but for now I’d just like to return to a theme that I have oft – that’s apocope, if you’re interested – oft explored concerning a speaker being a talking head.
Steyn is reading his speech. He doesn’t read all of it: now and then his face addresses the room and he goes off on one. When he does, the speech comes alive. The rest of the time it comparatively lacks oomph.
On other occasions in this blog I’ve highlighted a range of advantages to constructing your speech in such a fashion that you have a clear enough mind-map for you to shoot the whole thing from the hip –
Audiences love it
It frees you to adjust the material on the hoof
If your face isn’t forever looking down, you are less likely to pop your microphone
It says all the right things about your command of the subject, confidence, sincerity, spontaneity,
It forces you to structure the material in a format that you can remember, and as a byproduct you make it easier for your audience to digest.
This speech is only 35 minutes long, and if he had been taught how to do it Steyn could easily have shot it all from the hip.
I’d like to add to that list of bullet-points another factor that comes into play here. It amounts to a challenge. I suggested earlier that there was a lingual difference between written and spoken English. I contend that you can close your eyes, listen to Steyn, and know when he is speaking and when he is reading. There’s a difference in the rhythm, the intensity, the sheer energy that comes out of the words. There’s even a difference in the words. This is where those who have been taught, or taught themselves, skilfully to handle paper too often fail.
Mark Steyn handles paper better than Brendan O’Neill and less well than Boris; but till he finds himself having to make a range of different speeches, day after day, it’s a wasted, indeed counter-productive skill. The skill he needs is learning to do without, and it continues to amaze me how few have it. In nearly fifty postings on this blog barely a handful of speakers have delivered without paper.
He writes brilliantly. He speaks very well, but less brilliantly. If he would only learn how to speak without paper, and trust himself to do it, his speaking would rise to the quality of his writing.
I will admit that there are occasions where it is appropriate, in fact better, to read the material. If you are quoting someone else at length, then by all means unashamedly do that from paper. I mention this because there is just such an example in this speech. At 9:35 Steyn quotes David Icke in an hilarious section that I would not have missed for anything.
In fact, I would not have missed the whole speech. It is brilliant; but particularly when he shoots from the hip.
P.S. [added 14/3/13] Since posting this, I have seen several instances of Steyn speaking without paper. He can do it. So why did he not do it here? I can only assume that he felt this high-profile event required greater security. That’s a mistake: paperless speaking, properly prepared, is actually more secure than its scripted equivalent.
Yesterday I explained and enlarged upon my impatience with the practice of reading a speech from a script. I also told how there would be more examples in the next couple of weeks of speakers who would illustrate how much better they performed when shooting from the hip.
Today I want to focus on another matter that seems to have trended in this blog – and is destined to trend some more. I hate microphone popping. This is the name given to the little explosive sounds made by your percussive consonants – particularly ‘P’s – if you speak too directly into the microphone.
I’ve been trying to cast my mind back more than two decades to the days before I was trained for working on radio. One of the key things we were taught was how to prevent popping. I undoubtedly then became more sensitised to the sound; but how much did I mind it before? I don’t remember. The reason this concerns me is that it may be that most people never consciously notice popping – till a busybody like me comes along, points it out, and ruins everything for them.
Nevertheless, even if they do not consciously pick it up, their subconscious will register whether one speaker just makes a more pleasant sound than another. My trainees quickly pick up on my argument that it is as easy to do things right as wrong; and because many of them are senior business people who are delivering presentations whose success or failure could make the difference of huge amounts of money, the few percentage points either way, made by ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, can be pretty critical.
The key to correct microphone technique is not to speak into a microphone, but to speak across it – or at least anywhere into its arc of sensitivity except into the thing itself. It’s the sudden assault of a column of your breath that makes the pop. Don’t do what Boris did in that example speech covered last week. The stereo mics had been aimed at his eyes – which should have been fine – but at the beginning of the speech he wrenched them down to point at his mouth. Aaagh! Wicked man!
You’ve seen microphones with sponge balls on them. That sponge is designed to make the mic more forgiving of bad technique than it would be otherwise. But it won’t forgive the worst; and anyway why not develop habits that give it nothing to forgive? Right is as easy as wrong.
If you find yourself in a TV studio, and a sound engineer has clipped a lapel microphone on you, microphone technique no longer applies: you have no choice but to put yourself in that engineer’s hands. Likewise if they equip you with an ear-set – one of those things that look as if you have a boil on your cheek. You will be asked to say something for a level check. The only thing you have to worry about is that the volume you use for that level check is near enough the same as you use when on air. Seems simple, but I could tell you stories…!
At any rate you should stand by for a severe rant coming soon in this blog, because someone who used to be the British Prime Minister, speaking at a conference, is wearing a lapel mic. He is not popping, but badly ‘splashing’. That is another horror, wherein sibilant consonants – particularly ‘S’ – cause distortion in the sound system. As I stated earlier, with a lapel mic you are in the hands of the sound engineer who, in that case, should have been put out of our misery.
As you might have gathered, we have fun and games coming soon! I hope you find them entertaining and helpful.
Regular readers – if such a new blog can actually yet be said to have regular readers – will probably already have noticed two distinct trends emerging in the speech critiques so far posted. They are my impatience with those who read their speeches from scripts (what I call ‘talking heads’) and with those whose microphone technique is so poor that their percussive consonants cause popping sounds to punctuate their speeches.
If you had begun to wonder whether this indicated that I was possessed with a narrow range of just two obsessions, then kindly stand in line behind me. I have long wondered that also. But the more speakers and speeches I hear – and, as you might expect, I have already heard more of both than any sane person should expect in several lifetimes – the more I find that these are by far the two most widespread errors. Furthermore, to add to my frustration, they are both easily remedied.
In these critiques I always try to find examples wherein you get the comparison of seeing the same person both reading his speech and then at some other time ‘shooting from the hip’ as I call it. I hope that you thus get to see and marvel at the transformation. It is not just a minor detail: it puts the speaker immediately into another class.
When people are asked about speakers or speeches that impressed them, a comment that nearly always comes out is along the lines of, “He spoke for twenty minutes without once referring to any notes.” That suggests it to be a rare skill and therefore a premium bonus. It is not – or should not be – a premium bonus.
I have lost count of the number of times I have had the following said to me, “You’ll never get me to be able to do without a script”. (This comes out often at the preliminary meeting that I usually have with a prospect trainee.)
For more than twenty years I have uttered the same reply – and it remains true to this day, “If I don’t, you’ll be the first.”
The skill boils down to two simple principles –
You need to know how, and
You need to know you can.
It doesn’t matter how thoroughly you learn the first of those, you are never going to dare try it ‘in anger’ unless and until you know you can. So if I conduct a course with you I not only explain how, but also I very thoroughly prove to you that you absolutely and easily can. In my book The Face & Tripod I cover the first element, and make suggestions on how you can deal with the second. I admit that the result may not be as secure as doing a course with me, but it is one hell of a lot cheaper!
I don’t care who you are: you – reading this – can make a speech without using paper. I say that with total confidence. You could make a twenty-minute speech without reference to any script or notes.
So what price now “a premium bonus”? It’s not a bonus: its absence is a grotesque failing. And as you have already seen in this blog the failing is appallingly widespread – even among those who are actually paid money to speak!. I’d love to change the universal attitude to paperless speaking. It should not be regarded as a rare skill belonging only to special people: it should be the norm. Those who make speeches from scripts should be regarded as sad numpties beyond the pale.
I admit in my book that there are occasions and good reasons when there is no escape – you have to use a script. But those who have learnt to do without manage scripts better. Look back at Boris from a couple of days ago. He was using a script, but I forgave him. It wasn’t because he was Teacher’s Pet (remember I bollocked him for popping his microphone): it was because he spoke as if spontaneously. And there was a reason for that. It sounded spontaneous because it was spontaneous. Look back at his video and you’ll see he manages with only occasional glances at the script to keep him on his speech-writer’s track. He is shooting from the hip.
In the next week or so we’ll have an example of a sitting British MP, with videos of two speeches: one where he had to have a script and one where he didn’t The difference is dramatic. We also have two examples from a recent British Prime Minister, one speech with a script and one without. The difference is even greater.
After I did my critique of Ken Livingstone I decided to find a speech by his opponent, Boris Johnson, for analysis. This appeared in the June ’12 AuracleNewsletter.
Because my niche is the business world I wanted to work on a speech that could be termed ‘formal’. This was not because I felt my readers would be bored by the style of his more spontaneous outpourings (quite the contrary!) but for reasons of relevance. For them to glean benefit from a critique of a speech, it needs to be as close as I can get it to the sort of speech they might find themselves having to give. It took a lengthy, time-consuming, highly entertaining and informative search to find it.
Boris is giving a keynote speech at the MIPIM Real Estate conference in Cannes, in March 2011.
His introduction by Christophe Chupot lasts precisely one minute, and there is a relevance there that I shall explore shortly.
I can sit here and pontificate on what Boris does right and what he does wrong; but I do so at peril of making a fool of myself. Have you seen this quite-well-known YouTube clip? Arnold Schwarzenegger, waiting to address a Conservative Party conference over a satellite link, hears Boris preceding him. He whispers to a bystander at his end that this man is “fumbling all over the place”. When this was subsequently reported to Boris he dismissed criticism from a “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg”. The proof of the pudding is a relatively flourishing London compared with a virtually bankrupt California. You always have to bear in mind that Boris is not only bright academically, but has proved to be adroit politically and competent in office. I could compile a considerable list of issues I would address were I advising him, but in the back of my mind I would have the sound of the positive response I keep hearing from his audience. Your audience is your market, and I am a devout believer in the market. I suspect very strongly that he would reply to most – if not all – of my points that they were deliberate devices achieving particular aims; and I’d have a devil of a task, trying to marshal arguments against his track record of proven popularity and electoral success.
Here, for instance, is something significant. How long was his allotted slot – twenty minutes? Probably – it usually is. His speech finishes as the digital counter hits 20:57. Subtract his introduction of exactly one minute. This means that Boris, after “fumbling all over the place” comes out 3 seconds before his deadline. Awesome accuracy! Who dares claim that was just luck?
It seems glaringly obvious that this bumbling and fumbling that is so much a part of the Boris image is camouflaging a mind like a razor. What is less obvious is why. I wonder whether he created this camouflage as a defence at school, or later as a political tool. I’m already outside my brief so let’s look at the speech –
He leaps out of his chair, takes possession of the lectern, and though he’s at the height of his hump (yes, of course he has one!) and though he begins by thanking Christophe for the introduction, he is not looking at him but straight out front. When you are nervous there’s huge pressure to seize a legitimate reason to look anywhere but at the audience, but he spurns it. Pause at 1:07, and you see him holding the lectern and leaning forward eagerly like a prop forward about to engage in a scrum. This is a man who is channelling all his nerves into transmitting his message.
1:23 Leave those bloody microphones alone, Boris! He points them at his mouth and for the rest of the speech they are popping like Rice Krispies. Actually, if the conference organisers knew their stuff, they would have better microphones. There are some that will not ‘pop’ whatever you do. They cost a little more, but hey! Here, though, I feel a dark suspicion creeping in: I looked at a lot of Boris’ speeches while seeking this one, and in nearly all of them he ‘popped’. Furthermore, in one of them he kept tapping for emphasis on the lectern to which the microphone was attached. The sound was thus conducted to the PA system and the resultant percussion was maddening! Please, Boris, don’t tell me that you are doing this on purpose to keep people awake!
2:04 He shields his eyes to find someone in the audience. He does it several times during the speech. I’ll say more about that later.
He is very good indeed at reading from a script, and yet sounding spontaneous (I’d prefer him not to be using a script at all, but he’s a mayor in office and very busy). One of the devices he uses to achieve that – as part of his apparent fumbling – is interrupting himself with manic interjections. It’s a form of anapodoton and his being a scholar of the classics you can bet your shirt (even in this lousy weather) that he knows not only the device but the word. And, lest you wanted me to illustrate anapodoton, I’ve stuck a couple of tame ones in this paragraph.
N.B. reading the script does mean that he ‘pops’ every time he lowers his face to the lectern.
2:40 He lists cities that have been studied as part of growth research, but rather than just reeling off names he strengthens the list by putting the words “They looked at -” in between the names. That rhetorical device is called polysyndeton and you can bet your… &c. (And that tailing-off is another form of anapodoton: is there no end to the information you are getting today!)
7:57 He corrects himself unnecessarily – “In our preparation for…/…In the run-up to the Olympics…” In the process his eyes never leave the page. What’s the betting that the correction was scripted as part of his brilliantly portrayed “fumbling”?
9:35 Penelope and her suitors. Trust a classical scholar to insert a reference to Homer’s Odyssey. And look at the tiny mischievous smile that accompanies it!
12:18 More carefully-portrayed fumbling! “And we, and we, and we are on, and we are on a course, we are on a course…” Why do I claim it’s carefully portrayed? I’ve seen him do that so often that it’s almost a mannerism. This is one smart cookie who knows how to create a cuddly image.
13:31 Lovely joke! I won’t spoil it for you; but if you want to go straight to it you need to start further back – say around 13:10.
20:57 Ends! That’s a timing bull’s-eye by any standards.
BUT … he had been intending to conduct a Q&A session at the end. He clearly has not read The Face & Tripod. I lament in my book that everyone in the whole world (except for my trainees) puts Q&A sessions at the wrong place in their presentations. I bow to no one, no not even the mayor of London, on this matter.
I said earlier that I would look at how Boris periodically shielded his eyes to find someone in the audience. I don’t have a problem with that as such; but Boris does have a problem with stage lights. In this speech he has an almost constant dazzle-frown. It’s not unusual: stage lights can feel rather over-bearing, and Boris – commendably – is intent on focussing on his audience. When I direct plays I sometimes teach my principals to ‘love their lights’. You have to get into the counter-intuitive habit of actually widening your eyes to welcome the glare of the lights (your pupils will cope). That way, far from frowning, your facial expression remains more open. And you can make your eyes flash! I’m not joking: I could teach Boris how to make his eyes flash. But that might compromise his carefully nurtured fumble-image.
Lastly… Did you spot any sign of nerves? I did. There’s one thing he does periodically – his hand comes up to stroke the back of his head. That is an indicator of stress, and I believe it’s hard-wired into us: babies do it, though with babies it tends to signify tiredness. So be reassured: Boris is no more fearless than you. He has simply worked very successfully at concealing his fear. So can you.
Perhaps that’s one reason his hair is always in its trademark mess.